The Catholic Fundraiser

Neurofundraising for Major Donor Gift Officers

Posted by Geoffrey W. Peters on 11/15/18 8:36 AM
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Fundraising and winning over prospective major gift donors can be a challenging task - wouldn’t you want to take advantage of everything that could make that job easier? Enter the science of neurofundraising. This pioneering field capitalizes on an understanding of neuroscience - the study of the structure and functions of the brain and nervous system, and utilizes it when approaching donors.

Let’s take a look at some of the elements of neurofundraising and how it fits into traditional charity fundraising ideas in greater detail.

Intentional Gestures and Micro-Expressions

Where should you sit or stand when speaking with a prospective major donor? Where should you sit if you want to persuade someone to do something? How important is a smile?

Each of these questions brings up an important element of donor behavior, that with the help of neuro and behavioral science, can be used to your advantage. Intentional gestures and micro-expressions both have an effect on a donor.

For example, did you know that:

  • Requests made to the right ear are more likely to be successful

  • At a donor dinner, you should always sit to the right of the target

  • When approaching prospects at networking events, you should approach from the right

Why? By sitting, speaking, and approaching from the right - you will be speaking to the emotional side of the brain and are more likely to be heard empathetically, particularly if you are telling a story.

Even micro-expressions can have an effect on people. If you show passion, energy, empathy, and trust – those are more likely to be returned from the prospect. One study showed that even a 16-millisecond subliminal image of a smile (or a frown), causes an unconscious shift in the emotional state of the subject. This was then shown to affect people’s behavior, such as how thirsty they were and how much they chose to drink.

Establishing Trust and Credibility

When attempting to solicit donations and garner support for your cause, what you say is just as important as how you say it. Here are some sample statements to consider including, which build trust, establish social proof, and set a precedent for a behavior.

“You can trust us to do the job for you.”

Placing this statement at the end of an ad caused trust scores to jump as much as 33 percent, and also increased respondents’ scores in areas of fair pricing, caring, fair treatment, quality, and competency. A simple statement reassuring your audience that you are well intentioned and trustworthy goes a long way.

In fact, one of the most important brand values for charities is trust. It is frequently one of the hallmarks that distinguishes us from other for-profit organizations. Tag lines on our logos such as, “A charity you can trust!” or “Money-back guarantee,” as well as other non-mission related cues emphasize this important value. Even third-party endorsements can be used to build credibility.

Prospective donors are often reassured by knowing that others have gone before them, and that there is a social precedent for their gift. Donor or beneficiary endorsements can be particularly helpful in providing this social proof, making prospects more comfortable and more likely to give. Examples of donor endorsements to include could be: “I gave because . . .” and “They really helped me in my time of need . . .”

People also tend to follow what others are doing and they like achieving milestones. By including statements such as: “Most people give $50 but we appreciate any gift no matter how large or small,” or “We are 80% of the way toward [goal], your gift will help us get to 100%” - prospects are more likely to donate, because they feel that they fit in and are contributing to the completion of a goal.

Flattery can also be used as a tool to convince donors. Chan and Sengupta of Hong Kong University found that even flattery that was perceived as insincere had a positive influence on outcomes. While flattery that was perceived as true had an even stronger positive influence.

When speaking to a major donor, compliment the prospect and try to find something that is accurate and factual. If your compliment is true, it will be all the more effective. For example, you could say, “I understand that your alma mater selected you as the alumnus of the year, congratulations, that is a wonderful achievement!”

Neuromarketing: Reciprocity and the Ladder of Engagement

Direct marketers have long known about the concept of reciprocity: give me something and I’ll give you something in return. The “Ladder of Engagement” works by encouraging donors to take small steps, which will in turn lead to larger steps. It works on the understanding that once people have already committed to a small level of engagement, they are more likely to commit to more. Understanding reciprocity and the Ladder of Engagement can be used as effective tools for connecting with subjects.

Italian researchers found that twice as many online visitors gave up their contact data when they were provided the “reward” first, and were under no obligation to complete the form or provide personal information. Conversely, when asked to first provide their contact data before receiving the “reward”, participants were less likely to engage. This illustrates the power of reciprocity.

In another study subjects were provided either iced or hot coffee and then told to rate someone else’s personality based on a file of information provided. Those provided with hot coffee scored the persons being rated, higher on “warmth” than those provided iced coffee. Brain imaging shows that hot and cold stimuli light up the area of the brain related to trust and cooperation. Physical warmth causes us to see others as warmer, or more friendly and trustworthy.

So how do these studies help you? When pitching your major donors, start with a warm beverage - say “I brought you Starbucks.” This will trigger a reciprocity response, and as a bonus caffeinated beverages have been shown to boost short term memory, meaning they will remember your pitch.

To begin the first small step on the Ladder of Engagement, ask for a small favor. You could ask for a glass of water, or ask if you can simply list their name as a supporter without a financial commitment. Taking this first small step in reciprocating the favor you initiated with a cup of coffee, will lead your donor to consider making a greater commitment down the line.


Another fascinating tool, which utilizes principles of neuroscience to effectively approach major donors, is a process called mirroring. “Mirror neurons” or “mirroring” are the terms used to describe the following phenomenon. When something familiar is perceived, your brain’s activity is similar to that which it would show if you were engaged in the perceived behavior. Translation - if someone you are speaking to scratches their ear, the likelihood of you scratching your ear increases significantly.

Because of our innate ability to read body language and micro-expressions we naturally mirror the other person’s apparent emotional state.

Some consultants train major donor fundraisers to consciously mirror their prospects, creating an empathy bond. Others suggest that a confident approach by a fundraiser to a prospect will cause the prospect to feel confident, whereas a timid approach will have the reverse effect.

Training major donor gift officers to mirror their prospects can take as little as a few hours although the real masters of mirroring even try to match the heart and respiration rates of those they are attempting to persuade. Research shows mirroring behavior immediately builds trust and empathy.

Try Out Some of These Tips!

Each of these elements of human behavior and brain function is a unique idea to help you to improve your approach to major gift donors. Try using a few of these suggestions in your next sit down, and see how they positively affect the responses you receive!

We invite you to explore our digital resource page — Neurofundraising: Lessons in Major Gifts— for a better understanding of the scientific approach to donor engagement.

Explore the Resource

Geoffrey W. Peters

Written by Geoffrey W. Peters

Geoff, , CEO of Moore DM Group, is an internationally recognized expert in fundraising using many channels. His teaching credentials include more than eleven years of teaching at the graduate school level, presentations at more than 100 continuing education programs.

He is Past-President of the Direct Marketing Association of Washington and was a Board Member of the AFP-DC Metropolitan Chapter. He has served as Vice-Chair of the DMA-Nonprofit Federation and has been awarded the Max Hart Award as well as the DMA-Nonprofit Federation’s Public Service Award for his various volunteer efforts on behalf of the nonprofit community. He has twice been cited by the Nonprofit Times as one of the 50 most influential leaders in the nonprofit sector in the United States and by Fundraising Success as one of the top ten men in fundraising in the US. He has received the George T. Holloway award for public service from the National Catholic Development Conference.

Learn more about Geoff Peters’ work on Neurofundraising visit by visiting his website.